Alma - Surprising Find Downtown
It’s a fairly large space, but there are only 8 or 9 tables. So you get plenty of room, which I totally appreciate. My pet peeve is when a restaurant assumes you want to sit so close to the neighboring party that you have no privacy. So when I saw this layout, I breathed a sigh of relief. And the music they play is old-time brass. Like Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. It has a very nice vibe.
They don’t have a liquor license yet, but you can byob, which all the other tables did. They also make creative cold non-alcoholic drinks. We had an apple, earl grey and honey drink, and also a celery and pear drink. All the ingredients of the apple drink could be easily discerned, and they went well together. But we liked the celery drink better. The celery itself didn’t really shine through, but nicely diluted the pear juice to the point where it was flavorful and refreshing.
The seaweed beignet would have been better as an amuse bouche. You get four beignets instead of the two you would get if it was just for the two of us; but it was more of a warm-up for the rest of the meal. It was plated on a tile with two sauces that were necessary to make this something more than fried dough. Notwithstanding, the seaweed aspect was unique, and I enjoyed the subtle umami flavor. They should offer them individually, for like $2 or $3 each, and suggest one for each diner.
But then things got a little more interesting. No, REALLY interesting. Our next course was a beautifully plated cold crab dish. It was full of color, with a yellow cream sauce on one side of the bowl, over which was the white and pink crab meat with bright pink radish-flavored shaved ice on the sides. Then there were green baby basil leaves, slices of red and white fresh radish, tiny pink and yellow nasturtiums, and green dill sprigs sprouting from the top. This was a colorful feast for the eyes and the flavors, textures and temperatures (shaved radish ice) were exciting and different with each bite. And miraculously, all these different ingredients interacted with each other so each bite had a balance, although different from the last. Oh my. This was a treat.
The next course was two soups.
The first was a sweet potato soup with apple and what they called tete de cochon. I’ve had pork brain before and like it very much. It was fried and had an earthy flavor, though not really porky. The broth itself had a tanginess brought about by the acidity of the apple, and this really kept the dish interesting.
The second soup wasn’t really advertised as soup, but it was a sunchoke puree poured over an impossibly perfect egg yolk with a very small amount of smoked fig and a baked sage leaf. To say the yolk was impossibly perfect is an understatement. It maintained its shape and firmness when cut into, but was still creamy and eggy on the tongue. And the sunchoke puree was not so rich as to fill the mouth with fat, but rather the earthiness of the sunchoke, combined with the egg yolk and seasoning made this dish really stand out. The smoked fig added to this dish as well, but there were only two tiny slivers in the bowl. This was another winning dish. After two courses, we had two winners.
The last course started with the autumn salad, and like all the other dishes, the ingredients were undisputedly fresh and unique. In this example, the artichoke listed in the menu was not the pedestrian heart or crown, rather it was small fresh full artichoke leaves, crisp and firm with rough texture, but tender enough to eat whole without scraping the meat off of them as you do with larger, more mature leaves. There were also micro slices of grapefruit and a unique baked wheat berry that gave the dish a solid crunch as well as a grainy flavor to balance the citrus dressing. This had a variety of flavor and texture, but the portion was too precious. It’s really too small to share, although we did.
After a half hour wait, the final dish was served: Suckling pig with shaved Brussels sprouts and two different cream sauces. This was basically pork belly, and while it had a nice flavor and extremely tender texture, like the salad this was also much too precious, particularly given it was the most expensive dish on the menu. I think the wait also tainted our experience of this dish, so some of the disappointment can be chalked up to that. But I don’t think we’d order this again.
For dessert, we spotted a sunchoke split on the menu beforehand so we had to try it. On the bottom of the plate is a marshmallow cream that gets torched in the way of a crème brule. And the burnt sugar tastes like that on a crème brulee. Over the top is frozen sunchoke cream with green sunchoke meringue cookies sticking up out of it. Around the base are candied chunks of sunchoke. This dish was very good for several bites, but was too sweet for our taste. I think it would have been better if they didn’t candy the sunchokes; but that’s just me.
All in all, this meal was a complete surprise. I just spotted the restaurant name on Opentable, and seeing there were no reviews we decided to try it. We were shocked at the quality of ingredients, the attention to detail, the beautiful plating and the obvious focus of the chef on just creating good food. We’ll be back.
952 Broadway (at Olympic, close to Staples Center)
Not a full review here, but just wanted to thank Lil Mickey for this great review, which after hearing J. Gold's KCRW review, encouraged me to order the sunchoke soup. He and the others above are right that it is divine. (PS - yes, I confirmed with waitstaff that the yolk is cooked sous vide as suspected). Was so good we ordered another. I also noticed that Michael Anthony of Grammercy Tavern chose a sunchoke soup as his recipe to highlight in the WSJ this weekend, so Alma may be ahead of the curve on this dish. And Anthony did not think to add the perfect egg yolk like Ari.
We had a great time and great pre-theatre dinner, all for $165 for table of 4 (plus $100 for two wines we brought along), although no coffee or dessert. Contrast that with dinner the next night at Osteria Mozza, where we blew through $480 for a dinner that was not nearly as interesting (again, with two bottles of wine).
Another note - I know the seaweed/tofu beignet is a signature and yes, it is interesting, but I am not a fan personally.
As CulverJack notes, it is a small place with small kitchen staff, which some have said can back up the kitchen. Maybe because we were earlier than most, we did not find that to be a problem.
To date myself, it reminded me of my first visit to Cafe Blanc in a rough section of Highland Park before they got closed down by health department for no permits and opened back up in Beverly Hills - a gritty urban location where a young creative chef is taking risks in his early career, and at a price that feels like a steal. Alma was not as consistently creative as I found Cafe Blanc during my first visit, but I definitely got the feeling I will be hearing more about (and tasting the food of) this chef in the years ahead.
Dined at Alma for the first time last night and will most likely return soon. On Tuesdays, they do a four course tasting for $45 that was an amazing deal for some real quality food. It started with the beignets as an amuse, followed by a parsnip soup, a salad with a horseradish dressing, a pastrami wagyu entree, a fresh ginger palate cleanser, and a carrot cake with sorrel ice cream and white chocolate. The service was bright, enthusiastic, and helpful. There was one large table that was REALLY enjoying their wine and the volume of their conversation made it somewhat difficult to talk across our table, but I won't hold that against the proprietors. I must say, the foot traffic in and out of the taxi dancing establishment next door made for an interesting contrast to the comfort of what was being served at Alma. Of note, the tables one each side of my party seated both Santos Uy and Michael Voltaggio, respectively. Alma just might be the restaurateur’s restaurant of the day.
That egg yolk in the sunchoke puree was the single best bite of 2012 for me. It was perfection. I didn't know you could do that to an egg yolk. I mean, hell, I know the humble chicken egg is probably the single most versatile ingredient in cooking, but this is some serious talent.
re: fame da lupo
Oh dear... hard to describe, but I will try. I don't know for sure how it was prepared since I was not sitting at the counter. But if I had to guess, it was slow-poached in an immersion circulator because I can think of no other way to get such evenness of medium-rare state throughout the orb. It's like when you have a medium-boiled egg with a yolk that is slightly firm on the outer edge and gradually softer through the center with a completely runny patch in the center –- it's that middle layer closest to the center but not quite runny where the magic happens –- it's not cakey/crumbly like the fully cooked outer edge and not runny like the center. It has the consistency of a luscious, silky, firm pudding, with the subtlest succulence that is barely detectable yet incredibly satisfying – it's a texture you want to hold on your tongue and have linger in your mouth as you slowly press the viscous half-liquid/half-solid matter with your tongue to the roof of your mouth while the pure, unadulterated egginess permeates your senses. Then, slowly... deliberately... let it flow to the back of your throat and swallow.
Like that. The amazing part was that almost the entire yolk was like that, with just a pea-sized center that was slightly less cooked than the rest, but still not runny.
completely agree with positive assessment of alma dtla. i went several months ago when it just opened. wasn't sure what to expect going in but i was pleasantly surprised at the end of the meal. i've been meaning to return for dinner as the menu is quite different now. byob is a plus, though i wish there was decent glassware (or any stems for that matter, drank out of tumblers).
I agree - Alma is definitely worth visiting for hound types. They are doing very inventive interesting things. I've been twice and really liked it both times. I found the chef when he was at the SM wine bar Salute and really dug the food, then at his pop up when it was in Venice.
They are truly now rolling their own in a funky downtown spot, and given how interesting the food is, I really like the idea of supporting this place. You get the true sense you are supporting the little guy here, and its well worth the trek downtown.
I would say the place may not be for everyone - as Lil mikey found, it's a smallish kitchen staff and sometimes courses can take a while, so if this is an issue for you beware ( I'm fine with it, particularly when I have byob in the mix). It's not a spot where you will find a huge standard menu with ahi tartare. And the food is inventive and always changing, so there will occasionally be some misses. But to me there are way more hits than misses, and I appreciate what Chef Ari is doing here more than I appreciate Ludo, for example. It feels like something special.
Thanks mikey, great review.